‘Tis true, bloggers inspire other bloggers. Or maybe I’m just a Milton Berle archetype of the blogosphere, stealing an idea and calling it my own. I’ll let you decide.
Blogger Deb at the Widow Badass Blog recently posted about finding old cards and notes in her “Happiness Box.” After reading that, my mind immediately went to a folder of letters that I’ve been hauling from city-to-city for over three decades now. It’s not that I’d forgotten them. In fact, I’ve robotically added to this now-bulging folder after receiving something meaningful, or so hysterically funny that I can’t bear to toss it. For your consideration, I offer the below birthday card sent to me only a couple of years ago (Hi, A):
With COVID-19 “generously” offering me an unlimited opportunity of reflection and self-discovery, these letters are opening a door to voices from my past. The best part is that there are no ticking time bombs or unpleasant digs of earlier recriminations. It’s happily just a lovely stroll down memory lane.
The majority of the folder’s contents are letters from each of my parents going back to the early 1980’s. I moved from Michigan to Washington, DC, and had begun my career working in law libraries. From the many addresses written on the envelopes, I am reminded of just how many times I changed digs during my first two years there (cockroach infestations, noisy roommates, or both, as I strain to recall).
I’m not certain why I started keeping these letters. I know I wasn’t terribly sentimental at the time. In fact, the complete absence of correspondence from high school and college friends — of which I do recall there was plenty during this period — tells me that at least initially, I must have considered the file to be only for family correspondence. Only later, at some point in the nineties, do I see letters and cards from other people.
As I sort through and organize it all, I notice an additional aspect of my behavior of that period: I clearly knew what I was doing. The clue to this are the slight modifications made to some of the letters.
I added the year. My parents were good about writing the day and sometimes the month, but not always the year. So I’m recognizing my own hand in including it. Perhaps it was the librarian in me, demanding clarity, context, and correctness. But I suspect not; this was all coming from a place closer to the heart. I knew someday this correspondence would be meaningful to me. What I could never have imagined is that it would take a world pandemic to bring back its essence to me.
I feel like I’ve snuck into Professor Dumbledore’s office and am engaging in an unauthorized use of his pensieve, seeing moments I was never able to witness for myself. What probably bored the twenty-something me, as I raced to finish each letter, I am now fascinated by the routines and habits described by my then, recently-retired parents. Day trips to Windsor, Ontario; haircuts at long-closed joints my dad visited; dinners with my aunt and uncle at Cortina’s (which I happily discover is still operating); shopping trips to Detroit-area Jewish bakeries and butchers no longer in business, etc.
Struggling through Dad’s awful penmanship reminds me of the oft-told story we heard as kids: our grandfather, alarmed at seeing his son was a lefty, forced him at a young age to write “correctly” with his right hand instead. A lifetime of horrible scrawl became his hallmark.
Any resemblance to my own sorry attempts at longhand, we consider to be merely coincidental.
But Dad’s stories and recollections are vivid, with bursts of wonderfully-placed sarcasm. Neighbors, relatives, and whoever might have occupied the White House at the time, found themselves on the receiving end of his creative barbs. To wit, re: George H.W. Bush: “That man wouldn’t know how to use a verb if it hit him square on his dangling participle.”
I have to remember to use that sometime — one can steal from his own parent, right?
It is my mother’s letters, however, which have touched me in a manner that I couldn’t have anticipated. I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of letters she wrote to me (Dad’s missives were far fewer), and also just how much she was rooting for me to succeed. I’ve forgotten the amount of times she sent a check to “tide” me over, or that I should “buy something extra” for myself. There are constant references to care packages about to be shipped, tips on staying healthy, and reminders of upcoming birthdays and anniversaries of family members. Without going overboard, she also spun the occasional yarn about her own experiences with career and life challenges, trying her best to let me know that she did understand whatever challenge I might have been facing at the time.
After Mom’s passing, I struggled for quite a long time in coming to terms with how much she changed during her final years, when dementia took both her and my siblings and me on the rockiest of rides. Perspective can take longer than we sometimes want sometimes. Of course, arriving late to a party is better than never getting there at all.
So, I’ll continue to wash my hands, keep a safe distance, and nervously run into grocery stores every four or five days or so. But I’m also getting to catch up on old times. Really old times.
Keep staying safe, everyone.
Until next time…